Two consecutive droughts may be changing the way Texas High Plains cotton farmers manage their crops.

“I think drought is altering the way we look at water and the way we irrigate,” says Matt Wilmeth, Ralls, Texas, farmer and banker. “We may need to reduce the amount of irrigated acreage,” he says, and possibly change crop mixes to conserve water resources that continue to decline across the High Plains.

He’s currently managing nearly 1,500 acres of cotton. He converted 150 acres to grain sorghum following a hailstorm that took out some cotton early. “All but 100 acres of that is irrigated,” Wilmeth says. “Twenty percent is in subsurface drip irrigation; we have 30 acres of row-water irrigation; and the rest is under pivots.”

The 2012 crop, he says, “is not bad — it’s way better than it was last year. Most of our acreage is just a little below normal. Some of the drip irrigated acreage is as good as usual. We got some rain that other places missed.”

Last year, he says, the area “got basically no rain, and high temperatures and high winds also hurt.”

Wilmeth says his bank customers, many of whom have farm loans, have changed irrigation management to half-circles — watering cotton under half the pivot and growing the other dryland or leaving it fallow following wheat.

“We started to do that on one pivot this year, but we got some rain and planted a full circle.”

He says if grain prices stay high he may try to plant a short season corn variety — 100-day maturity — and cotton after that. “I would plant as early in March as possible and would be through watering corn by the time cotton needs moisture.”

He says planting corn on the outside or the inside of the cotton crop would be more efficient than planting two half-circles. “We get more benefit from the water by making a full circle than by using a windshield wiper technique.”

Adding more subsurface drip irrigation is currently not an option, “unless we pick up another farm. We also like to have land available to graze for our commercial cattle operation.”

Cotton will remain most significant crop

He thinks the area will turn to more dryland cotton in the next few years. “If grain stays high into the fall and spring, we might see a temporary dip in cotton acreage. Long-term, cotton will remain the main crop for this area, but we may see some decline.”

He says some acreage is not well-suited to dryland cotton. “Soils are too tight; we typically get rain in the spring, and then we get runoff. A wheat/fallow/cotton rotation may be another option. That has worked well for some until the last two years of drought.